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Joanne Froggatt interview: ‘Making the Downton Abbey movie was like a school reunion’

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 17/02/2019 Elizabeth Grice

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 24:  Joanne Froggatt attends the Paul Smith SS19 VIP dinner during Paris Fashion Week at Hotel Particulier Montmartre on June 24, 2018 in Paris, France.  (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Paul Smith ) © Getty PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 24: Joanne Froggatt attends the Paul Smith SS19 VIP dinner during Paris Fashion Week at Hotel Particulier Montmartre on June 24, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Paul Smith ) How tiny she is; neat and alert as a bird. And how steely. Joanne Froggatt’s bright, expectant stare is a little unsettling. She seems to have been born knowing her own mind and wanting to explore the contents of other people’s.

As whey-faced Anna Bates in all 52 episodes of the dear-departed television drama Downton Abbey, she was never just sweetly subservient. There was an obstinacy under her lady’s maid deference that gave the part its edge.

In the wider hoo-ha about how Downton made the names of hitherto unregarded actors, it’s generally forgotten that Froggatt’s acting career had been on a steady upward curve for 20 years when she joined the household of the aristocratic Crawleys. It may be less a case of what Downton Abbey did for the career of Joanne Froggatt than what Joanne Froggatt, lady’s maid extraordinaire, did for Downton.

Her trustworthy, honest and frankly dowdy character was pivotal to many of the key storylines – as it will be once again when the Downton Abbey film is released in September – and she invested the part with a dignity and finesse not normally associated with below-stairs life.

“There was quite a lot of me in Anna,” she says. “Probably more than in most characters I’ve played. I am a very loyal person and I think I’ve got a strong moral code. I’m conscientious, I work hard, but I like to have more fun than Anna. I love my work but I’d certainly prefer to have more than half a day off every fortnight. Anna will see the best in people, but she’s not a pushover. She will stick up for herself.”

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - JUNE 18:  Joanne Froggatt of the serie 'Liar' attends a photocall during the 58th Monte Carlo TV Festival on June 18, 2018 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images) © Getty MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - JUNE 18: Joanne Froggatt of the serie 'Liar' attends a photocall during the 58th Monte Carlo TV Festival on June 18, 2018 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images) It’s lunch break during rehearsals for a new play and she’s spooning soup out of a paper cup. Alys, Always, directed by Nicholas Hytner and based on the novel by Harriet Lane, is a big number for Froggatt, a psychological thriller that perfectly taps into her talent to disturb. “Pretty much the dream job, really; the kind of job you just don’t say no to.”

She plays the lead, Frances Thorpe, a production drone on the books pages of a Sunday newspaper. Frances is quiet, efficient and colourless – prime Froggatt territory. All that changes one winter evening when she happens upon the aftermath of a car crash and hears the last words of the driver, Alys Kyte. “[Frances] achieves things you wouldn’t have thought her capable of,” says Froggatt, who enjoys nothing more than overturning expectations.

Her pale, receptive face is an invitingly blank canvas for complex emotion. As Anna Bates, she made plainness beautiful. As the serial killer Mary Ann Cotton (in the television two-parter Dark Angel), she made it sinister. “My work has never been based on being a great beauty,” she says. “I’m very happy with the way I look. I’ve made a pretty good career for myself playing the girl next door; the plain Jane that people don’t expect to do something, who’s always got a surprise up her sleeve. The girl people underestimate.

“I don’t have any great vanity when I’m playing a role. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest if I look horrendous or at death’s door. But would I ever leave the house looking like that? Over my dead body. I feel naked without a bit of foundation and mascara and my eyebrows on.”

PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 19:  Actress Joanne Froggatt attends the 2018 Sundance Film Festival Official Kickoff Party Hosted By SundanceTV at Sundance TV HQ on January 19, 2018 in Park City, Utah.  (Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images for AMC Networks) © Getty PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 19: Actress Joanne Froggatt attends the 2018 Sundance Film Festival Official Kickoff Party Hosted By SundanceTV at Sundance TV HQ on January 19, 2018 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images for AMC Networks) You can’t imagine another actress speculating so matter-of-factly about whether her perceived plainness might have protected her from sexual misconduct that others in the industry have suffered. “A certain kind of person presumes that if you’re playing a sexy character, that’s you,” she says. “I’ve not played characters that are deemed to be sexy. I don’t know if that’s helped. I haven’t had any personal experience with stuff I’ve been uncomfortable with in a sexual way at work. I’ve been grabbed in a bar, grabbed on a Tube, been touched where you don’t want to be touched. But, thank God, not in a working environment.”

Froggatt is sure of herself, proud of her track record, but ever grateful that opportunities in film, television and theatre keep coming. Friendly, unstarry and polite, she will chat with fans but if they overstep the mark – by taking a photograph of her without asking – she asks them to delete the picture, then offers to pose with them properly. “I am not an animal in a zoo. I am approachable.”

Pragmatism rules. “If people don’t watch what I do, I don’t have a job. If you resent it [public attention], you have a very miserable life ahead, and what’s the point of that? You have to be grateful for the things you’ve got. Most people are lovely.”

Froggatt doesn’t talk herself up, but nor does she pretend she doesn’t deserve to be where she is. She’s from Yorkshire, after all. Born in Scarborough and brought up near Whitby, with wild moors on one side and grey sea on the other. Her parents had a 10-acre smallholding, raising sheep and making yogurt and cheese from their milk. While they were working, her elder brother took her to see films, the beginning of a fascination with worlds beyond her own. Her parents, Ann and Keith, took her acting ambition in their stride. “My dad said, ‘You’ve only got one life. You spend a lot of it at work. Try to do something you love.’” At 13, she went to stage school in Maidenhead, seven hours’ drive away. At first she was homesick and suffered the further misery of not being understood because of her strong Yorkshire accent. Her father offered to bring her home but she stuck it out, and after a week, she “loved it”.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 17:  (L-R) Sophie McShera, Michelle Dockery, Lesley Nicol, Joanne Froggatt and Allen Leech attend 'Downton Abbey: The Exhibition' Gala Reception on November 17, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Paul Zimmerman/WireImage) © Getty NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 17: (L-R) Sophie McShera, Michelle Dockery, Lesley Nicol, Joanne Froggatt and Allen Leech attend 'Downton Abbey: The Exhibition' Gala Reception on November 17, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Paul Zimmerman/WireImage) At 16, she landed the role of a teenage mother in Coronation Street and has supported herself by acting ever since. “I had to take a few jobs to pay the mortgage with no thought about whether it was a great role,” she says. “It’s been a bit touch-and-go at times. Now I’m fortunate in that I can be picky – or pickier. And I try to be.”

Froggatt briefly considered changing her surname to something less earthy. Then she realised that casting directors would at least remember it. “It’s not the most glamorous of surnames but it’s where I come from and part of what I am.”

She’s similarly protective of her accent, eroded now to a soft indeterminate northernness by her peripatetic life. “It happened quite naturally. I didn’t ever want to consciously change it because I still wanted to be me, the amalgamation of my own experiences and my own journey in life.”

That journey included roles in the prison drama Bad Girls, Dinnerladies, A Touch of Frost, Spooks and Robin Hood. She appeared at the Old Vic in All About my Mother and at the Royal Exchange in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She played the sister of Myra Hindley in See No Evil: The Moors Murders (2006) and the following year was Joanna Lees in Murder in the Outback, another dark real-life story. For her film debut as a soldier in In Our Name (2010), she went unpaid – the only way she thought she would get to play a lead. It won her best newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 17:  (L-R) Actors Lesley Nicol, Sophie McShera, Joanne Froggatt and Allen Leech visit Build Series to discuss 'Downton Abbey: The Exhibition' at Build Studio on November 17, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Desiree Navarro/WireImage) © Getty NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 17: (L-R) Actors Lesley Nicol, Sophie McShera, Joanne Froggatt and Allen Leech visit Build Series to discuss 'Downton Abbey: The Exhibition' at Build Studio on November 17, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Desiree Navarro/WireImage) Then there was Anna. After receiving a Golden Globe for best supporting actress and three Emmy nominations, it was predictable that more Annas would be dangled in front of her. “I did stay away from working-class northerners for a little bit,” she says drily. “Not that I’ve got anything against them, but I didn’t want to play their character all the time. And I loved Anna. I wanted her to stand on her own. I didn’t want to do some carbon copy of her.”

When the television cast disbanded in 2015 after four eventful years, Froggatt spoke of “an element of grieving”. Then last year, against all logistical probability, the original actors were reunited from the four corners of the earth to make the film. “It’s amazing that people wanted us back to do the movie,” she says disingenuously. “It was so surreal. Everyone who was there at the end is there in the movie. It was like a lovely school reunion.”

Sworn to secrecy about the plot, Froggatt waffles on loyally about “romance, fun, surprises, sadness and intrigue. Everything people want, but elevated. Anna is in a really good place. She and Mr Bates have a baby boy, now 18 months old. She is passionate about helping Lady Mary with the running of Downton, about keeping the legacy going.”

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 17: (L-R) Kevin MacLellan, Chairman Global Distribution & International NBCUniversal, Joanne Froggatt, Michelle Dockery and Gareth Neame, Series Creator and EP and MD, Carnival Films attend the 'Downton Abbey: The Exhibition' Gala Receptionon November 17, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images) © Getty NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 17: (L-R) Kevin MacLellan, Chairman Global Distribution & International NBCUniversal, Joanne Froggatt, Michelle Dockery and Gareth Neame, Series Creator and EP and MD, Carnival Films attend the 'Downton Abbey: The Exhibition' Gala Receptionon November 17, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images) During Downton, and very privately, Froggatt married her longtime boyfriend James Cannon, an IT boss whom she’d met in a bar “in the old-fashioned way.” They live in a village in Buckinghamshire and have jointly started a production company, Run After It. Cannon (who “always thought he had a novel in him”) writes scripts. They have five television projects in development.

Though she looks very much younger, especially with her eyebrows on, Froggatt is 38 now, approaching the age when actresses start to worry about the dearth of substantial parts and she admits that having another string to her bow may be useful. How would the two jobs fit with family life? “If a baby comes along, a baby comes along,” she says. “You just make it work, don’t you, like every other woman in the world.”

Soon she’ll begin filming the second series of Liar, the television miniseries in which she was praised for her performance as Laura Neilson, a schoolteacher who believes she has been raped. “It ended up being one of those water cooler shows,” she says.  “I care about what I do and it’s always a thrill when it goes well. Touch wood.” The day of actually having to look for work seems some way off.

Alys, Always is at the Bridge Theatre, London SE1 from March 2 (0333 320 0051; bridgetheatre.co.uk) 

Gallery: British shows that became blockbuster smashes [StarsInsider]

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